Political betting markets have a surprisingly good track record of predicting election results. Four months ago, Barack Obama was rated a 1 in 50 chance of winning the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination. Only elected to the United States Senate in 2004, many talked about Obama as a potential presidential candidate in 2012 or 2016.
But with an October appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show and the cover of Time Magazine, Obama is rising at a positively meteoric rate. At the time of writing, the betting markets put his odds of winning the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination at 1 in 5: ahead of heavyweights John Edwards and Al Gore, and second only to Hilary Clinton.
The chief reason for Obama’s recent rise is almost as surprising as the rise itself. He has written a very good book. In a world where most politicians produce books the way recalcitrant university students write essays (with copious clichés, and help from invisible friends), a feisty political manuscript is a rare find.
What marks Obama’s book is not only that the voice is so clearly his own. It is his lightness of touch with America’s weightiest issues. He is at his best on race, pointing out his own diverse racial origins: “the child of a black man and a white woman … with a sister who’s half Indonesian … and a brother-in-law and niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher”, as the basis for his view that “There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America - there’s the United States of America”.
With a less deft touch, this appeal to inclusiveness could sound insipid. In a nation where blacks are three times as likely as whites to be living in poverty, politicians cannot simply deal with diversity by suggesting that we all ignore skin colour.
As the only African-American in the 100-member US Senate, Obama reminds the reader of the “petty slights” that the average black American man endures: “security guards tailing me as I shop in department stores, white couples who toss me their car keys as I stand outside a restaurant waiting for the valet, police cars pulling me over for no apparent reason”.
Describing a visit to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, he notes in passing that none of the new employees appeared to be black or Latino. Yet he recognises too that “white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America”, and advocates replacing programs that help only minorities with a combination of universal social policies and better enforcement of civil rights laws.
Ultimately, what sets apart Obama’s position on racial issues is his appeal to hope. Reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s hope-filled appeal to “the better angels of our nature”, Obama insists that: “What is remarkable is not the number of minorities who have failed to climb into the middle class but the number who succeeded against the odds; not the anger and bitterness that parents of colour have transmitted to their children but the degree to which such emotions have ebbed.”
With optimism comes a strong streak of decency.
Obama argues his political positions with passion, but also with a sense that his side has no monopoly on truth. Democratic audiences, he writes “are often surprised when I tell them that I don’t consider George Bush a bad man, and that I assume he and members of his Administration are trying to do what they think is best for the country”.
He is sceptical of shills for the right (such as polemicist Ann Coulter) and the left (such as the Daily Kos blog). An opponent of intervention in Iraq from the beginning, Obama is honest about his own internal struggles about troop withdrawal, and troubled by the growing undercurrent of international isolationism building within the Democratic Party.
The section of the book that says most about Obama’s perspective on partisanship is his account of an email he received from a doctor who opposed abortion.
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